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Meet the air plan deadline: Federal officials give state a reprieve, but effort must continue

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Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 12:26 am | Updated: 12:31 am, Thu Nov 21, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Fairbanks spent years under the threat of federal sanctions for having high carbon monoxide levels in its air. Now we are facing the threat again for our high levels of particulate matter.

Given that the old federal ultimatums about carbon monoxide always seemed to get waylaid and never resulted in serious sanctions, should we take the latest warning seriously?

That question arises again after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it had delayed the deadline for a state plan to clean up the dirty winter air in Fairbanks. Now the state has until Dec. 31, 2014, as the result of a court decision that forced the EPA to revise its methods. The new deadline replaces one that already passed at the end of last year.

Yes, the state and Fairbanks should take this new deadline seriously, for a few reasons.

First, cleaning up the air isn’t just a meaningless federal mandate. It’s an important public health goal for our community. Getting it done sooner than later would benefit the health of many people in the Fairbanks area. The particulates in question are microscopic — just 2.5 micrometers, or 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. They get stuck in the respiratory system and cause a variety of problems.

Second, we should not play Russian roulette with the federal sanctions. The state’s highway funds are at risk. Permits for all sorts of development, public or private, could be denied in the Fairbanks area.

State officials said Tuesday they believe they can come up with a scientifically defensible plan to reduce particulate levels enough to meet federal standards.

They’ve identified a number of methods that, in combination, might get us there. The proposal that probably will get the most attention would modify a state rule that limits use of wood stoves during bad air days. That might sound scary to people who heat with wood, but the department wants to make the existing rule more flexible.

“The current regulation does not anticipate the concept of local air quality zones or pollution ‘hot spots’ nor contemplate that wood may be a sole source of heat, which is a significant issue during winter months in Alaska,” the department explained in a summary of its latest efforts. “As a result, DEC is proposing to amend the regulation to provide additional flexibility and discretion. While the department could still restrict the use of wood-fired heating devices during times when air quality exceeds the formal episode levels, the ability would exist to tailor any restrictions to address the specific situation.”

The department has a list of other potential actions, which can be viewed online at It has held several workshops, the last of which is scheduled for Jan. 8. Formal public comments will be taken at a hearing in Fairbanks on Jan. 7.

We’ve spent years working on such ideas. It’s time to get a realistic plan in place.


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